Universal and Warner Bros. remain vital, but three once-reliable suppliers — Sony, Paramount, and Lionsgate — are lagging. Combined, they have had only 20% of the gross so far, even with 14 releases among them. This kind of gap is unprecedented, and consequences — including who survives, and who merges — could lead to even fewer theatrically released films.
While theaters are vocal in regarding Netflix as the enemy, it’s a penny-ante problem by comparison. Yes, Netflix wants its films to qualify for Oscars, but that ultimately represents a tangential business for theaters. “Green Book” is the best-grossing winner in six years, and “Endgame” will gross more by late Friday afternoon than Peter Farrelly’s film did in its entire run.
Much more worrying is streaming service Disney+. It debuts in November, and so far there’s limited indications of the impact it will have on theatrical plans. The expectation has been that the Fox acquisition was guided more by desire for streaming product than for theatrical. However, Disney just announced that “Dolphin Reef,” the next Disney Nature film, will debut on streaming rather than go theatrical as past entries did (most recently, last week with the low-grossing “Penguins”).
That’s minor for now, but when will Disney insist it needs more flexibility on theatrical windows? Producers and their studios have spoken about the need for films that have short theatrical runs so they can move on to other platforms more quickly, and benefit from the initial marketing spends. And Disney is in a unilateral position that makes them very difficult to refuse. It might offer incentives, like reducing the studio’s film rental percentage on films that stream earlier. But it could also come with a threat: Disney could retain the option to take its biggest films streaming in under 90 days and those who don’t like that, don’t have to play it.
Disney and Marvel have made public commitments to keep their top films as conventional releases, where they perform brilliantly and create an experience that maximizes what they produce. However, it’s impossible to believe that any top circuit would refuse to play the next Marvel blockbuster even if it came with an earlier window.
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That’s the position Disney finds itself in. And the higher the gross for “Endgame,” the stronger that position becomes.
A $300 million opening for “Endgame,” or any number above the current record, is a boost for a lagging business. But when it happens, ignoring the wider implications is something smart insiders will avoid. They’re as significant as the positive news of a huge new hit.